It's been years, but Giles still sees Buffy everywhere. Out of the corner of his eye, in crowds, walking in the distance. He thinks he sees tricks of her stride, the way she holds her shoulders, the tilt of her head. Once a week, once a month, he sees her in the bodies of strangers and hears her in the voices of girls he's never met.
He knows she's dead. Of course she's dead - the world has ended. Besides, if she wasn't dead, wouldn't he have gone and found her, no matter what had happened? He would have found her.
This is how he knows that the woman at the bar, the woman with the white hair and the sunburned skin covered in black tattoos, cannot be Buffy. He knows this absolutely until Spike comes walking in. Until Spike comes walking in and she kisses him, obscenely, perversely, brutally, and Giles's world spins and twists and when it comes back down, it's completely reconfigured.
Giles follows them without letting them see him, a trick he's perfected over the last fifteen years. In many ways, he tells himself, his life isn't that different. He fights demons and he drinks too much, and if everyone he loves is dead, well, there weren't that many people he loved in the first place.
He follows Spike and Buffy around the ruins of Paris for three days. They are always on the move, looting, dancing, fighting, fucking. Giles doesn't watch the last of those, but he sees enough. Sometimes, in crowds, he gets close enough to read some of Buffy's tattoos, and with the words memories flood back. Scooby, Angelus, Glory, Willow, I touch the fire. His own name is on her right forearm.
At least he hasn't been forgotten. That's something. Even if the memories make him feel like he's been gutted, like the deer and small animals he hunts for food. Skinned and cleaned and bled and empty, limbs spread out. He is suddenly brutally homesick for Sunnydale, a place that had never actually felt like home - homesick for the way the library smelled, and for tea and his books and happy joking American teenagers. Homesick for Buffy, the way she used to be - not this new, strange Buffy he can't get a handle on.
Because even after three days of watching, Giles has no bloody idea what is going on. She hasn't aged under that sunburn - though she should be 35 she still looks the same as she did at 20, if one disregards the reddened skin and white hair. There's an electric charge to her, the air trembling with it, and he's seen her walk into a club and the music start from stereos that haven't played for fifteen years, power crackling through them. And he's seen her steal and hurt and kill, kill humans, without thinking twice or looking back, and he wants to know what Spike has done to her. Spike, who, unsurprisingly, looks just the same as ever, though he seems more subdued.
This strange, dangerous, warped Buffy makes him ache for the girl she was, when she was young and her hair was yellow and she always did the right thing. Or tried to, anyway. Whatever Spike has done, he'll pay for this, Giles thinks, and stores up anger in his chest.
On the third day, he watches Spike and Buffy go into the old building where they've been staying. An hour later, Buffy comes storming out alone and slams the door, shouting an obscenity over her shoulder. So they've fought, then. This is the first time he's seen her without Spike, and he follows her to a club where she immediately begins to dance, angry and sharp and beautiful. Giles gets a drink and a table in the corner, and he watches and wonders if he should approach her.
But after five minutes she comes to him, sits down, and casually sips from his drink. Giles is stunned into stillness, but she doesn't seem to recognize him. She gives him a mildly confused, penetrating look and says, "You seem really familiar."
He opens his mouth to speak but can't think of anything to say.
"I mean, you've been following us, so there's that, but you seemed familiar before. I think maybe I dreamed you."
So he hasn't been as stealthy as he thought, but he doesn't understand. "Oh?" he says, to buy time.
"Yeah. Randy says it's nothing, and that I should forget it, so I figured I'd come talk to you while he's not around."
Randy. There's a roaring in Giles's ears, and he's remembering what happened directly before he left Sunnydale and never saw Buffy again.
"Randy," he says thickly. "And you are Joan?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"Lucky guess," Giles says, and takes a sip of scotch. She doesn't remember. Of course she doesn't remember. Spike did this.
"Did you know me? Why are you following us?"
"I... you remind me of someone I used to know," Giles says.
Buffy tilts her white head and looks at him. "You're, like, a psycho stalker or whatever, but I don't get it. I feel, I dunno, safe with you. Secure, or something."
"Really," Giles says. Maybe there is some of her left after all.
"You're making Randy really nervous, though. He doesn't say anything, but he's really tense. Like the world's about to end, or something." She laughs, and takes another sip from Giles's drink. When she puts the glass down, she casually lays her hand over his, and the warm, dry skin of her palm shocks him with the static electricity of winter, even though the Paris air is hot and thick with humidity.
"Sorry," she says, but doesn't move her hand.
It's been so long since anyone has touched him. So even though it's Buffy, even though she is strange and unsafe and changed, he doesn't pull away. Even when she leans in to kiss him. Even when her tongue goes in his mouth. Even when she moves to sit on his lap.
Their kissing is hot and languid, Buffy's hands in his hair, and he can't breathe. He loves her, not like this, but he loves her, he loves her, he loves her. She smells of aloe and salt. When she pulls back and begins to kiss along his jaw line, her skin hot on his, he says, "Buffy," without thinking.
She pulls back abruptly. "What?"
Oh no. "Hmm?"
She gets up, staring at him with a stricken look on her face. "What did you call me?" She looks like someone has punched her in the stomach, her mouth slightly open, her eyes wide.
He sighs. "Buffy. I called you Buffy."
At that moment, Spike walks through the door of the club and zeroes in on them. He looks alarmed when he sees them talking, and strides purposefully towards them, pushing people out of his way.
Buffy is still completely focused on Giles. "You knew me," she says. "Oh God. Oh God." She doubles over for a moment. "Fuck."
"Joan," Spike says, coming up behind her. He puts his hand on her back. "Joan."
"Get the fuck away from me," she says in a low voice, and Spike moves away sharply, like he knows she means business.
Spike turns to Giles with a tired, world-weary look. "Christ, Rupert, now you've done it."
Giles's hands clench into fists. "She's alive. Buffy's been alive this whole time?"
Spike sits down in Buffy's vacated chair and puts his head in his hands. "Buffy died a long time ago, mate. That's Joan."
"What did you do to her?" Giles grits out.
"Everything," Spike says. "Nothing."
Buffy straightens up, her lips white with anger. "Spike," she says. "You're Spike. I remember."
"Here we go again," Spike mutters, and sits up. "Yeah, pet."
Buffy shrieks and punches Spike so that he flies across the room. She is suddenly a whirlwind, flying white hair and red skin, a force of nature, a crazed light in her eyes. Every ancient electrical appliance in the place goes mad, and the other club patrons rush for the door.
"I remember, damn it!" Buffy screams. She turns to Giles. "You left me! You left me!" And she lashes out at him in the same way she did Spike, her fist flying to strike him in the chest. As it strikes him, Giles thinks that yes, Buffy died long ago.
Not being a vampire, he feels his rib cage crumple and his lungs puncture as his body is flung wide by the force of Buffy's blow. This isn't the way he expected to die, the imprint of Buffy's hand in his chest, the sound of her raging in his ears as he strikes the back wall. Blood fills his mouth and he gasps for breath as he hazily sees Spike get to his feet, barely hurt by Buffy's fists. Spike begins to try to talk her down, the two of them the only ones in the room still standing.
The world has ended and he is finally dying, and maybe Spike and Buffy are meant to be the only ones who live in this perpetual end of the world. Hero turned antihero, antihero turned hero, shades of gray and super strength, Randy and Joan.
And now Giles himself bleeds to death on a dusty floor, following those that died before him: Jenny and Xander and Dawn and the whole world, dead and ending. Buffy, who died long ago. His eyes get bleary and there's a roaring rising in his ears, and he thinks he sees her in the doorway, where sunlight is flickering in. His golden girl, blonde and young and happy, wearing horribly impractical shoes. He thinks he sees her. He sees her.